We’ve all heard about rising sea levels, endangered polar bears, stronger hurricanes and a multitude of other consequences of global warming.
Now here’s another to add to the list: ticks – and, in particular, Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged tick that is a carrier of Lyme disease. As we observe National Lyme Disease Awareness Month, it’s important to note that the geographical range of the black-legged tick is spreading northward as average temperatures rise. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency added Lyme disease to its list of 30 indicators of the long-term effects of climate change.
As a result of the expanding range of the black-legged tick, Lyme disease is on the rise. The incidence (confirmed cases per 100,000 persons per year) increased 28 percent between 2004 and 2013, the latest year for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has statistics. Once confined mainly to southern New England, the Middle Atlantic states and the upper Midwest, Lyme disease now affects the populations of the more northerly states, with the incidence in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine now ranking first, second and third.
The incidence is also increasing in Canada. In 2013, Canada’s Public Health Agency reported 500 cases nationwide. By the 2020s, it expects that 10,000 Canadians annually will be coping with the disease.
While some maintain that Lyme disease has been present in northern New England and Canada all along — that the symptoms previously weren’t identified as such — or that the increased incidence is due to factors such as the transplant of ticks by migratory birds, the consensus of most scientists is that the increase is due to global warming. According to Canadian public health authorities, global warming causes the black-legged tick’s life cycle to speed up, meaning that more survive long enough to breed and reproduce.
I believe the increased incidence of Lyme is also contributing to an increase in what author Richard Louv called “nature deficit disorder” in a 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” about the fact that that all Americans, but especially children, are spending less time outdoors due to urbanization, the lure of electronic devices and demanding work and extracurricular schedules. Louv maintains that the nature deficit contributes to health and behavioral problems such as obesity and attention deficit disorder.
The concept of the nature deficit has spawned a range of programs to promote outdoor activities, including — in a twist on the George W. Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” program — a movement called “No Child Left Inside.” But in the central New Jersey area in which I live, where Lyme disease is endemic, the impulse to get outdoors, already compromised by the nature deficit, is further inhibited by the fear of contracting Lyme disease.
Many residents have had Lyme at least once, some multiple times. Horror stories abound about Lyme victims who are on long-term antibiotic drips, who wake up one morning unable to see, who are confined to wheelchairs. Parents are reluctant to let their children play in the woods – to build forts, to fish, to catch lightning bugs, to play hide and seek – in short, all the outdoor activities that once occupied the free time of most American children. Adults are afraid to even walk the dog in any area that’s not paved with concrete or asphalt.
With the expansion of Lyme, that fear is spreading to new regions of the United States, and even to a new country, Canada. The incidence of Lyme in New Jersey, which was 31.0 in 2004 – at the time the fourth-highest in the nation – has remained steady. But in Maine, where I vacation, it has skyrocketed. In 2013, the incidence of Lyme in Maine stood at 84.8, compared to only 17.1 in 2004; and in Vermont, which now leads the country in incidence, the 2013 figure was 107.6, compared to only 8.0 in 2004.
A common view among those who believe in climate change, but not its negative effects is, “What difference does it make?” By their lights, global warming means, for instance, that lengthened growing seasons and more precipitation will increase humanity’s ability to feed itself. But this attitude loses sight of the effects on health and wellbeing. Many have documented the obvious effects of global warming on health, including, in addition to Lyme disease, poor air quality and water borne illnesses such as cholera and intestinal viruses.
But health effects can also be subtle and insidious. By contributing to the nature deficit, the increase in Lyme disease can affect weight, lung function and mental health even in those who don’t contract it. Then there’s the greater effect of the disconnect with nature on society: Some observers have noted that a lack of outdoor activity contributes to a lack of appreciation and respect that can negatively affect society’s sense of responsibility toward nature, and even undermine efforts to conserve our dwindling natural resources.
So as we observe Lyme disease awareness month, let’s not let the expanding fear of the disease worsen the nature deficit. Experiencing the glory of the woods in springtime is one of mankind’s greatest pleasures. Don’t let the black-legged tick stop you from getting out there to appreciate it. Just make sure you take appropriate preventive measures.